11/07/2012 11:07AM

Pandolfo: Balmoral gives best horses and handicappers a fair chance


In the past few months I had columns on handicapping the half-mile and five-eighth-mile tracks. Most harness tracks are the smaller ovals. On half-mile tracks, the horses go around twice, so they have to negotiate four turns. On five-eighth tracks, they go around twice but since the race starts on the backstretch, they go around three turns.

Almost all harness races are raced at a distance of one mile, but final times are faster when there are fewer turns. It’s easier for a horse to go at his peak speed down a straightaway.

Even though there are a lot more half and five-eighth tracks, you could argue that bettors prefer the bigger tracks. In this country, the two most popular one-mile tracks that race long meets are Balmoral Park in Chicago and the Meadowlands in New Jersey. These two tracks have the highest handle per race in the country. They are the only tracks that have been able to handle over a million dollars in one night with any consistency.

In Canada, the two most popular tracks in terms of handle are Mohawk and Woodbine. Both of these tracks are seven-eighths of a mile long and race around two turns.

I don’t follow Canadian harness racing that closely, so I’m going to limit my analysis to the two most popular one-mile tracks in this country. But the driver strategy at Mohawk and Woodbine is very similar. In this column I’m covering Balmoral. When the Meadowlands opens for business next month I’ll have an in-depth column on the Big M.


BALMORAL: This popular one-mile track in Chicago has a stretch that is 1,360 feet long. This is roughly twice as long as most half-mile tracks. Balmoral also has an open rail where drivers can duck inside for clearance. Because of the long stretch, Balmoral is the least speed-favoring track in the country.

The advantage that these two turn tracks have over the smaller ovals is that they offer more post position parity. There are two reasons for this. For one, there is a longer run-up to the first turn. In other words, there is a great distance from the actual start of the race to the beginning of the first turn. This makes it easier for horses to leave the gate from the outside posts. But the long stretch also makes it easier for horses to come from far back. Consequently, the races are fairer. What does this mean to a handicapper? It means a lot.

When you’re handicapping a race on a half-mile track, you have to take into account the fact that posts 6, 7 and 8 are at a distinct disadvantage. It’s hard to leave from the outside and it’s hard to close from the outside. On most half-mile tracks the extreme outside post, post 8, only wins 3% to 4% of the races.

At Balmoral, post 10 win is winning 8.9% of the races and posts 8 (9.7) and post 9 (9.6) are also right below 10%. Post 1 is winning at 11.5%. So as you can see, there is much more post position parity at Balmoral than there is on half and five-eighth tracks.

As for the movement in the race, Balmoral has the inner rail. This means that if a horse is trapped on the inside turning into the stretch, there is an inner rail that allows the driver to duck inside for clearance. This was added to many tracks years ago so horses wouldn’t get boxed in. You could make a case that the inner rail cuts down on the amount of movement in a race. For example, if a driver is sitting fourth at the half, instead of pulling first over, the driver may elect to sit in and wait for the long stretch. The inner rail gives the driver more options and a better chance of escaping.

Of course, with the Balmoral stretch being so long, this also cuts down on movement for the same reason - the drivers can wait for the stretch. That being said, there is still plenty of action in most of the races. With the long straightaway down the backstretch, this gives drivers an opportunity to make their moves without having to burn up energy around a turn. It’s much easier for a horse to accelerate down a straightaway than around a turn. In most of the races, a lot of the action at Balmoral occurs either down the backstretch, or in the homestretch.

The favorites are winning just under 39% of the races at Balmoral. This is about 5% less than the average on half-mile tracks. For several months earlier in the year, the favorites at Balmoral were winning at a much lower rate. This means that there are more longshot winners at Balmoral than there are on many of the smaller ovals and bigger exotic payoffs.

When you’re handicapping and betting Balmoral, in some ways it’s a throwback to the glory days of harness racing. I say that because when I first started following the sport back in 1971, the key to handicapping a race was finding the best horse in the race, or a horse that was in the best form and fit on class. In today’s sport, racing over the half and five-eighth tracks is vastly more speed favoring than it was years ago. Consequently, a handicapper has to try to zero in on horses that are likely to leave the gate.

But front-runners don’t have as much of an advantage at Balmoral. In fact, on many nights only one or two horses win by going gate to wire. This means that a handicapper can look for a horse that is fit and ready to win, and not be as concerned about post position or whether or not the horse is likely to leave. It also means that a handicapper can look for the best horse, a horse with a class edge. Class is still important in handicapping on all harness tracks. But over the more speed favoring half and five-eighth tracks, a horse with a class edge is often thwarted by a bad post, or a speed bias.

At Balmoral, a class horse has a better chance of winning, even if the horse doesn’t have early speed. We saw this at Woodbine in the recent Breeders Crown races, which were contested on Saturday, Oct. 27. In the 12 races, all major stakes races, no horses went wire to wire. Several of the horses that won came from considerably far back with winners coming from 11, 10, 8, 7, and 5 lengths back. This makes a track like Woodbine an ideal track to have these major stakes races. Of course it helped that the races were in late October as opposed to a warm summer night. On cooler evenings, speed does not hold up as well.

There is something else to look for when handicapping Balmoral- late speed. You often hear handicappers talk about “fastest last quarter.” Finishing power is an important handicapping factor. But it is more important at a track like Balmoral. With the long stretch, the horses with the best stretch kick often emerge victorious. Look for horses that have the ability to gradually make up ground throughout the race, but also have fast final quarters in relation to the other contenders.

I don’t want to insinuate that early speed isn’t important. Any horse that has the ability to leave the gate can put itself in good striking position. But, at Balmoral, early speed isn’t going to help a horse if the horse can’t finish well down that long and demanding stretch. On many half-mile tracks, horses that have speed but don’t finish well often hang on for the win because the closers are mired behind weak cover, or stuck wide on the final turn.

Balmoral is more about class and ability. Watch your replays, look for the horses that are improving, or showing sharp late speed.

To find out more about Pandy’s handicapping theories check out his www.trotpicks.com or www.handicappingwinners.com websites, his free picks at handicapping.ustrotting.com/pandycapping.cfm, or write to Bob Pandolfo, 3386 Creek Road, Northampton, PA 18067.